Colorism Within the Harlem Renaissance

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Jatoria Nicholson
Dr. West
ENG 4903.01
6 December 2012
Colorism within the Harlem Renaissance
Within any group of people there is always going to be some form of judgment and African American people of the early twentieth century Harlem are no different. Throughout this course students have been immersed into the culture of 1920s Harlem and through this immersion many significant issues have surfaced from the artist of the time period. A major issue that has been repetitive throughout all forms of art during this period is colorism. Colorism which can also be called color conscientiousness, intra-racism, being color-struck, or having a color complex is a long standing epidemic focusing on physical appearance with a large concentration on the color of one’s skin (Carpenter 1). It is an ideology that is largely used in African American art dating as far back as slave folk literature and still being a dominant force in present day African American literature, but was a defining form of expression during the Harlem Renaissance. Although colorism is not gender specific I have found that it plays a more dominantly negative role in the lives of women and through literary and secondary source supports this paper will further express what colorism is and the affect it has on the women who face it at such a high racially tense time.

I believe it is first important to have an understanding of the period of time known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a time period that begin in the 1920s [when] black intellectuals of Harlem had a ‘reawakening’ of culture that had been dormant for generations (Huggins 3). It was a time where men and women of African descent aimed to form a high culture of their own in order to bridge the gap between differing races and create a world of literature free of prejudice (Huggins 5). This was also a time for African Americans to form an identity for their race that would yield power and put rest to the beliefs that African American people were savages, because they too would now have culture (Huggins 7). It is during this period that black art was broken into categories such as folk and high art and begin to be ranked as good or bad (Huggins 10). The Harlem Renaissance was a period in time that bred elitism amongst people of the same ethnicity with terms such as the talented tenth, common folk, old and new Negro, and the disregarding of traditionally accepted art in an attempt to be more “white” which eventually spilled from everyday life to literature.

It is the understanding of the time period and how growth created tension amongst Harlemites that one can see how elitism transformed into colorism. Elitism which is a form of superiority that occurs when people attribute their talents to be of a higher caliber than others, is in this case a direct connection to why colorism is an issue during this time period. As I considered the transformation of influential members of African American society I noticed that the overall theme found in most literature was the desire to be more like whites or the open disdain about imitating the “white lifestyle”. This created a divide within the black community allowing colorism to nestle into a fresh wound. Many scholars on the subject such as Hutchinson; believe that the term new Negro being used as a synonym for blacks appealing more to things generally associated with white America aided in this division (Hutchinson 171). It is at this point that the desire to be like white people culturally begin to slowly intercede into appearance with the desire to have straightened hair and pale skin and the divide of those who had these things and those who did not began what we know as colorism.

This journey of unveiling the truth and finding relevance of the ideology of colorism then leads people to define colorism on a societal level in contrast to the technical definition previously given. Although colorism does date back many generations...
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